By Robin Garr
If you’ve got a hankering for Chinese food, you can take comfort in this statistic: According to the trade journal Chinese Restaurant News, there were more than 43,000 independent Chinese restaurants in the United States in 2019.
The pandemic has surely seen closures, but still, that was triple the 13,443 U.S. McDonald’s locations in 2021. I’d much rather have a bowl of Jasmine Asian Bistro’s Sichuanese cucumber salad than a Big Mac anyway.
Still, when we parse that 43,000 tally, the number of really first-rate Chinese sit-down restaurants does start to shrink. There are the old-school Chinese-American spots that go all the way back to the Gold Rush, specializing in culturally blended dishes that immigrant restaurateurs developed to make the locals happy: chop suey, chow mein, and egg foo yung.
You’ve got the more modern neighborhood Chinese – there’s one next door to just about every supermarket in town – a vast menu that seems the same everywhere, designed primarily for takeout. There’s a ton of Chinese buffets, although buffet dining took a pounding during the pandemic.
Finally, we come down to a handful of comfortable, sit-down Chinese restaurants with table service, a comprehensive menu that covers the basics of the Chinese canon, and ideally an English-language “authentic Chinese” menu that offers mysterious yet strangely enticing items like Hong Shao whole yellow croaker or, wait for it, intestine with tofu hot pot.
By the time we get to this final category, we’re down to just a handful of candidates locally; and Jasmine Asian Bistro tops my list right now. Sibling of the larger Jasmine Szechwan Chinese Cuisine in the far East End, it’s my go-to when I’m hankering for a serious Chinese meal.
That hankering has mostly had to be satisfied by takeout, of course, since Jasmine Bistro opened in its Lime Kiln Lane shopping center space just a few months before the pandemic closed local eateries to dining in. So I was doubly happy the other day to take a seat in a comfortable, enclosed booth well removed from other tables.
The extensive menu includes about 220 Chinese dishes, including about 90 in the “Chinese authentic” section; it’s tilted toward the spicy fare of China’s Sichuan region but goes beyond to include other regional favorites. There are also about 60 sushi options including rolls and nigiri sushi bites and combo platters. Main dishes are divided among many categories – poultry, pork, beef, seafood, vegetable, fried rice, and noodle dishes – and range in price from $7.99 (for some veggie and noodle entrees) to a still thrifty $13.99 (for a few fancy seafood dishes.) Most individual sushi items are $4-$6; rolls range from $5-$15.
I like to order hot tea with Chinese meals, and to be honest, I like strong black Chinese restaurant tea best. But I can’t fault a restaurant named Jasmine for offering jasmine tea ($2 each). Better yet, it was clean, fresh, and floral, and – given time to steep in its attractive white teapot – strong and hot.
A Sichuanese appetizer, cold cucumber salad ($5.99), got us off to a great start. The idea of a cucumber salad may sound like something delicate, even bland, but this garlicky, spicy dish was nothing short of spectacular. A generous portion of cucumber had been peeled end-to-end to make stripes, then sliced lengthwise and cut diagonally to make a long rounded wedges. These were casually plated in several circular layers and drenched in a thin, fiery red dressing that lifted up the dish with complex flavors of chile oil, rice wine vinegar, and more, that made every bite of cucumber a delight.
Twice-cooked tofu ($8.99), pictured at the top of the page, is the meatless version of the Sichuanese classic twice-cooked pork, with the obvious substitution. The protein ingredient is indeed cooked twice, first marinated and baked, then seasoned further, deep-fried, and plated with crisp stir-fried vegetables including bok choy cabbage, sliced carrots, snow peas, and water chestnuts. About a dozen hefty triangles of tofu were creamy within an appetizing crisp skin; they were dotted with hot pepper flakes and coated with a spicy sauce that clung to the surface. I ordered it hot, the top rating on Jasmine’s four-step scale, and found it pleasantly warming but not fiery.
Bimbim Bom beef rice pot ($11.99) presents a Chinese take on the classic Korean dish bibimbap. A large portion of finely ground beef studded with bits of carrot, onion, green pepper, and crisp cucumber in a thick brown sauce, was ladled atop plenty of rice in a clay pot. The rice at the bottom had started to become appetizingly crisp and tan. An easy-over fried egg was dropped on top with the yolk left soft enough to mix in with the beef and rice as you cut into it.
A take-home dish of cold sesame noodles ($6.99) was thoughtfully packaged with sauce and noodles separate to keep the thick wheat noodles from getting soggy. Once assembled, it was a treat, with the long noodles properly chewy and deliciously wheat flavored, with the spicy sauce adding flavor and umami.
A hearty and exceptionally delicious lunch for two rang up a $40.32 tab, plus a $10 tip.
Jasmine Asian Bistro
2420 Lime Kiln Lane